A common theme to the displays covered in this guide is that they all connect to an HDMI output on the Raspberry Pi. These tips do not apply to SPI or PiTFT displays (using the Pi’s GPIO header) or DPI (Display Parallel Interface) displays (such as Pimoroni HyperPixel or Raspberry Pi Touch Display), which have their own setup methods or installers.

Some displays feature touch input, but that’s a whole extra layer of complexity and is not covered in this guide. We’re focusing strictly on getting a usable image.

Self-Contained Monitors

This first group are devices intended as computer or video displays, not repurposed from some other application…

Small LCDs

These screens are sometimes seen in car entertainment or for portable video setups. Usually 5 to 10 inches diagonally and only rarely full HD resolution. You might find them as a ready-to-use product in a slick plastic housing, or as bare display, driver and button-control boards.

In Raspberry Pi circles these are often used in portable gaming projects or small task-focused systems like 3D print servers.

Pros: relatively inexpensive, and any of the ones in the Adafruit shop are known compatible with Raspberry Pi.

Cons: older screens that do not specifically mention “IPS” (in-plane switching) may have poor contrast and viewing angles.

DVI Monitors

Prior to the ubiquity of 16:9 aspect ratio displays with HDMI connectors, an earlier generation of computer monitors used a DVI connection. Seldom seen now, you might still find these at flea markets or thrift shops.

 

Pros: often super cheap, like $10. Usually plug-and-play with Raspberry Pi. Late models — 20" with a 4:3 aspect ratio — are an ideal size for retro arcade cabinet builds!

Cons: Requires HDMI-to-DVI adapter or cable. Brightness and contrast are inferior to later screens, though usually adequate. Finding one is a game of chance.

Projectors and Specialty Monitors

Highly weird video projectors, head-mounted displays and other esoteric varieties — as long as they include an HDMI input — are often plug-and play. But some are picky about resolution and may demand specific video settings. The subsequent pages of this guide may help.

Analog Televisions

Vintage televisions can be connected to Raspberry Pi if you’re after a specific look…but this requires some special doodads. This is the topic of a separate guide and won’t be covered here.

“Raw” Displays

The weirdest of the weird, these are the cutting-edge variety you might find direct from overseas companies, often designed with some esoteric application in mind, but can be repurposed for Raspberry Pi use. None of these is especially cheap…all cost more than the Pi itself. If you’re after a distinct look or special effect, it may be a reasonable gamble.

Many of these currently seem to trace back to a Shenzhen company called Wisecoco. Just a data point, not an endorsement, something to search when exploring AliExpress and elsewhere. There are others.

These displays must be paired with an HDMI adapter/driver board - they are not SPI devices. When buying, you may see separate options for a bare display (or two) and display-plus-HDMI-adapter for a bit extra, so make sure you get the latter.

If you find yourself with a variety of weird displays, keep the screens and their adapters together — and label them! They are not interchangeable. The adapters may look identical but may have unique firmware for the raw display they’re meant to drive.

These HDMI adapters are comparable in size to a Raspberry Pi Model A or a HAT board. This is only for size reference, they are not HAT boards nor even Raspberry Pi specific (they’ll usually work with PCs and Macs and other HDMI sources too). So they don’t neatly stack on a Pi, unfortunately. The adapter/driver will usually feature a full-size HDMI input, USB micro-B connector for power, and an FPC connector for a ribbon cable to the screen(s). Then there’s an adapter from the FPC cable to the display, sometimes called a Hirose connector or just “motherboard connector.” Each display’s will be different.

The connectors on these screens and driver boards are typically rated for only a couple dozen mating cycles, unlike HDMI plugs which are near indestructible. So try to set them up once and keep them connected.

Also, while you might find longer FPC ribbon cables, you will never find extension cables for the tiny Hirose connectors on the displays themselves! Most two-screen setups will have two connectors on one PCB, limiting how the screens can be positioned, but some feature a splitter to two FPC cables and Hirose adapters…go for that if it’s available, even if it costs a little extra.

Round Displays

Seen in smart watches, thermostats, VR headsets, car gauges and internet appliances that want to stand out. Early ones had enormous bezels, but the latest displays go nearly edge-to-edge!

These present themselves to the Pi as a square or rectangular framebuffer. Pixels outside the circle are simply clipped from view.

Project ideas might include robot eyes, cutting-edge cosplay and props, that sort of thing. The shape still catches folks off guard and is a little “magic.”

Square Displays

With a high pixel density for their size, and driven in pairs, these are likely intended for virtual reality headsets.

The corresponding HDMI adapter that came with this set can drive two of these screens, and a Pi 4 has two HDMI outputs…sadly, that leaves us a couple squares short of a full video cube.

Bar Displays

Originally for automotive use (backup cameras, rear view mirror, instrumentation) or rack-mount servers (system status). Many variants, from little-wider-than-16:9 to incredibly long and thin ribbons. Some include touch input, though there may be no software support on the Pi, depending on implementation.

Larger ones are sometimes used in retro arcade projects, showing marquee graphics for whatever game is currently playing.

I can’t help but picture these bar displays for a retro-future “cyberdeck” computer. Together with a Raspberry Pi 400 and a battery pack, the combination would be reminiscent of the 1980s Tandy Model 100, but with supercomputer powers.

It would be neat to see the MacBook Pro OLED Touch Bar here, but have yet to see any sort of standardized interface adapter for that one.

High DPI or “Retina” Displays

Ultra high resolution screens as on present-generation smartphones and tablets.

This particular two-screen setup did not work on Raspberry Pi…it was glitchy at best. This won’t be the case with all of them…others may work fine, and this setup does in fact work with a Windows PC. It’s important to illustrate that this is sometimes a gamble. It’s Wild West stuff. Returns to overseas companies are rarely practical, shipping may exceed the cost of the hardware…so you may be stuck with it.

Interocitor

We’ve yet to find a triangular Interocitor screen. It’s just too weird, you hear me? TOO WEIRD.

Image credit: Universal Pictures, This Island Earth

This guide was first published on Dec 23, 2020. It was last updated on Dec 23, 2020.

This page (Display Types) was last updated on Oct 15, 2021.

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